No plan survives first contact with the enemy.
This pithy piece of military wisdom was proffered by the nineteenth-century Prussian military commander Helmuth von Moltke.
He observed that the sheer size and chaos of battle meant events rarely, if ever, unfolded to script. To cope with this, modern military forces adopted the doctrine of ‘intent’.
Intent describes the desired outcome or end state, the purpose of the operation and key tasks to accomplish. And whilst subordinate commanders may be given an initial set of objectives, they are empowered by interpreting the ‘intent’ to issue their own new orders to react and adapt to the flux of battlefield conditions in situ. Not having to wait to consult high command enables quick action so advantages can be exploited and emerging dangers headed off. Dynamic, flexible tactical execution within a strategic operational framework.
Given the massive upheaval and uncertainty created by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic – from rapidly shifting consumer behaviours to re-shaping of industry – the concept of intent has perhaps never been more pertinent to the way we undertake campaigns of a different sort – marketing communications. If we can successfully adopt its tenets, it will hopefully help consign certain traditional approaches to planning and delivery to the history books.
When I first started in PR, back when dinosaurs stalked the earth and TV was in black and white, campaigns plans took months to produce. Execution then followed a fixed, linear path over a period of a few more months, with the results analysed at the end. And so the cycle would rinse and repeat.
However, with the rise of new media – social and digital – plans started not to survive first contact. The immediacy and speed of these channels meant pre-planned ‘set piece’ activations could quickly be rendered ineffective or, worse, needing to be ditched.
We quickly learned the importance of agility and adaptability.
But that’s only part of the picture.
Switching from the military to the commercial world, it’s worth examining a corporate interpretation of intent that emerged in Japan, which has anchored highly successful business strategies.
In 1989, Gary Hamel, a lecturer at London Business School, and C.K. Prahalad, a University of Michigan professor, wrote an article on ‘Strategic Intent’ which was published in Harvard Business Review.
Hamel and Prahalad argued that Western companies focused on aligning their ambitions to match the resources they had access to and the advantages they could sustain. By contrast, Japanese firms set seemingly impossible goals and then aligned the efforts of the entire organisation to accelerate the skills needed and acquire the resources and means to achieve them.
In this way, ‘Strategic Intent’ empowered every employee to contribute, make positive decisions and overcome unforeseen obstacles. This leadership approach was core to how the then challenger-firm Canon sought to ‘beat Xerox’, and how Komatsu set out to ‘encircle Caterpillar’.
The fixed mindset of Western corporates ultimately limited their growth, as Japanese firms found innovative ways to outcompete them.
Through the prism of marcoms campaigns this, for me, perfectly encapsulates the opportunity cost of traditional approaches to planning and execution. Managing to the immediate resources – and timeframes – in front of you inherently reduces the potential for creativity, innovation and seizing emerging opportunities.
There are, of course, countervailing forces to embracing strategic intent as the modus operandi for marcoms. For one, the relentless quarterly rhythm of business and client-side budgeting cycles often influences adherence to specific timelines and fixed deliverables. Equally, on the agency side, resource planning is much easier working to a fixed projection of needs and skill-sets.
But the disruption, behavioural shifts and uncertainty created by the pandemic has exposed the limitations of traditional approaches like never before. And in a world that is digitally transforming at accelerated pace, including our and our clients’ businesses, the imperative to approach our work with strategic intent will only grow.
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